How small businesses can prepare for the next digital marketing shift

Image a collage created by Jason McBride from licensed Canva images

Mark Zuckerberg has made billions of dollars while smarter people than me have predicted Facebook’s impending doom. The company has become a global behemoth and a critical part of the digital marketing landscape for tens of thousands of small businesses.

Nothing lasts forever, and the shelf life of successful digital media properties is shorter than most other businesses. Facebook may not be in imminent danger of falling into bankruptcy, but its time as king of the internet is almost over.

Small businesses need to start preparing now for a future where Facebook has a much smaller reach.

Cracks in Facebook’s Defenses

Facebook’s dominance has been fueled by an aggressive user attraction strategy, innovative ad technology, and by playing fast and loose with privacy laws and data security. While it has so far managed to avoid meaningful sanctions from any government oversight body, a reckoning is coming.

Currently, Facebook is facing an ad boycott by several major brands because of its refusal to do more to keep hate speech off of the platform. Advertisers such as Verizon, Microsoft, and Sony have pulled their dollars from Facebook. Every day the number of name-brand companies joining the boycott is growing.

However, the real danger for Facebook is that small and medium companies are now also rethinking their relationship with the platform. Over the past five years, Facebook has been exposed several times as being duplicitous with its advertisers and users. This includes allowing companies to break its terms of service, and possibly the law, in collecting unauthorized user data. It also includes lying about the reach of video to boost its own features.

The backbone of Facebook’s advertising monolith is the army of small businesses that use the platform to micro-target customers.

European regulators are quietly moving forward in their antitrust and privacy violation investigations against Zuckerberg’s creation.

In the United States, there is growing bipartisan support for the idea that there is something rotten at Facebook, even if the two sides disagree about what the problem is. If there is a strong showing by the Democrats in the November election, it will likely bring unprecedented scrutiny to Facebook.

If the past is any indication, increased scrutiny of Facebook’s dealings will lead to the discovery of extensive unlawful and unethical behavior.

Another obstacle to Facebook’s continued dominance is the inability of the platform to appeal to Generation Z. The most online generation in the world doesn’t like or trust Facebook. If it can’t keep adding users, Facebook will fall from its perch.

Facebook has a large enough userbase of older users that it won’t go the way of Myspace or Friendster. It will likely gradually slide out of the top five social media platforms over the next five to ten years.

If you don’t want your small business to do down with the ship, you need to start preparing now for a world where Facebook ads don’t help your bottom line.

What’s Next?

It’s impossible to predict the future of digital media with precision. However, there are three strong possibilities for what will happen when Facebook loses its online advertising market dominance:

1. TikTok captures the crown

2. The market is split between social media subscription services

3. Something we can’t imagine

TikTok

TikTok is the fastest growing social media platform in the world. It is also beginning to exercise influence in the real world. Comedian Sarah Cooper has become a superstar on the strength of her hilarious TikToks, where she lip-syncs portions of President Trump’s speeches and interviews. In just under 60-seconds she delivers powerful political satire and comedy gold.

TikTok also had a strong news cycle recently when an alliance of K-pop stan accounts and politically active teenagers flooded the Trump campaign with bad data by requesting tickets to a Tulsa rally that they had no intention of attending.

Before you dismiss the possibility of TikTok having any utility as a business platform, remember Facebook was initially created a way for college students to rate the relative hotness of their classmates.

It’s easy to imagine how a short video less than 60 seconds long could become the new default way to leave a status update. It’s a natural evolution of the ubiquitous selfie.

However, TikTok does have one major obstacle to replacing Facebook. The fun video platform is credibly linked to Chinese government surveillance efforts. If TikTok gets banned over national security concerns, it will not take over the social media universe from Facebook. But, a copycat service could easily rise from nowhere and steal all of the attention.

Subscription Social Media

If TikTok doesn’t replace Facebook, a variety of subscription social media services could. Many thinkers believe their reliance on ad revenue causes the most significant problems social media platforms face. The current business model incentives poor privacy and data security practices.

While it may seem farfetched that anyone would pay to use social media, 20 years ago, people said the same thing as Netflix pioneered the streaming model we are all addicted to today.

Twitter has long been rumored to developing a subscription-based service. It’s possible that in the near future, you will pay a nominal amount, less than five dollars, to several different social media platforms. This will protect platforms from the pressures and vicissitudes of advertising that have devastated newspapers and magazines.

It would also mean that small businesses would need to focus more on content marketing instead of ads to drive traffic and increase revenues.

The Unknown

Based on past disruptions, it seems like Facebook’s most likely successor will be something we haven’t imagined yet.

Perhaps a couple of developers are having drinks right now in Bangalore, Tokyo, Santiago, Lagos, Paris, or Des Moines and are brainstorming the future Facebook killer.

We may not know what will replace Facebook, but we know that it will represent a fundamental shift in small business digital marketing.

How do you prepare for the unknown?

Preparing for the Future

The best way to prepare for the future of digital marketing is to remember what marketing is. Marketing is you telling your story to attract the people who want or need what you sell. The storytelling fundamentals of marketing are not changing.

When Facebook falls, the only thing that will change is the channel and methods you use to share your business’s story.

If you are wholly dependent on Facebook advertising, now is the time to broaden your marketing horizons. You don’t own the data Facebook collects about your customers. Every business, no matter how small, should have its own website and an email list.

If you have your own platform as the hub of your marketing efforts, the loss of one platform will not destroy your business. You need a place to direct customers to buy from you and a way to collect their email addresses so that you can keep in contact with them.

Having a website and an email list is the only way to future-proof your business. Depending on your business, you may not need a fancy or expensive website. A simple landing page may be all you need. Email marketing is the most cost-effective form of marketing.

If you already have these basics in place, there four more things you can do to prepare for a massive shift in the social media world:

1. Experiment with other platforms

2. Perform SEO Audit

3. Ramp up content marketing assets

4. Catalog current social media content

Experiment

You should experiment with other social media platforms outside of the Facebook-Instagram ecosystem. While I strongly believe that social media marketing should not be a huge priority for most small businesses, you never know how helpful a given platform could be to your business unless you try it out.

Spend two to three months getting to know a different platform, see if you can grow a following that drives traffic to your website. The experiment may not work, but it will give you more confidence in your messaging and the ability to adapt to new platforms.

Perform SEO Audit

Search engines in one form or another will continue to be how most of your traffic finds your website. The search may be initiated by a digital assistant like Siri or Alexa, but the principles of search engine optimization will remain the same. Your website needs to have the keywords that people are searching for.

Perform an SEO audit of your website. What terms do you rank well for? What terms should you be ranking for? What new terms will people be searching for in the near future? You need your website to bring in organic traffic if you want to operate independently of any social media platform. A detailed SEO audit will provide you with the blueprint you need.

Content Marketing

Content marketing will bring your business more customers over the long-haul than social media marketing. The most effective advertising and social media marketing usually are based on some type of content marketing asset.

Content marketing is about much more than blog posts. You need to create the type of content that your ideal customers love to consume. That may include videos, TikToks, blog posts, podcasts, webinars, or white papers.

The best thing about content marketing is that you can reuse an asset in several different ways. No matter what the future holds, if you have a deep library of content, you will have an advantage over your competitors.

Imagine if the next big digital marketing channel ends up being virtual reality (VR). If you already have videos or written content on a subject, you will be able to turn it into a VR-ready package much faster than a business starting from scratch.

Catalog Social Media Posts

While content marketing is designed to be evergreen, social media marketing is intended to be ephemeral. You post something on Facebook, and its reach is limited by a few days, or perhaps weeks if you pay to boost it.

You need to develop a catalog of the posts you share on all social media sites. You can use your catalog to fuel future posts on other platforms. Often, you can even repost old social media content on the same platform a year later, and nobody will even know it has been posted before.

Having a catalog of social media posts will allow you to hit the ground running when Facebook’s eventual replacement enters the scene.

Building a sustainable small business requires you to be agile. You have to be prepared for the next shift in the market. You also cannot be dependent on a platform that you do not control, such as Facebook.

If you currently rely on Facebook, now is the time to ween yourself. Facebook won’t last forever, but if you work hard, your business will outlast Facebook.